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Gary: Calgary Folk Fest

the Tryst 'n Shout workshop with Buffy Saint-Marie and the Punch Brothers onstage at the Calgary Folk Fest
The workshops are the heart of the Calgary Folk Fest

The Calgary Folk Fest:
A Distribution of Heterogeneity in Free Spaces

Story and Photographs by Gary Singh

t the Calgary Folk Fest, the observer/participant becomes half-starved and half-filled up. Split almost right down the middle. The starved half must move and interpret new territories, areas and stages. The filled-up half seems more satisfied with the stable condition, the sedentary condition, the lawn chairs.

This is the mind-topic of the Fest, emerging before the observer even departs from the hotel. A concrete bust of a dude’s head confronts him in the lobby of the Hotel Arts. Art and abstraction versus sedentary and concrete--a polar opposition from the start. The Folk Fest being a mechanism for harmonizing the two, of course.

concrete bust at the lobby of the Hotel Arts, Calgary
Concrete bust at Hotel Arts

Down the street, the festival awaits. One can arrive by either by land or water, from the streets or the river, as a pedestrian or on a raft. Once inside Prince’s Island Park, the traveler can either set up shop at one gig or migrate, like a nomad, from stage to stage, as aimlessly as he desires. The choices oscillate between static gigs on a timed schedule and collaborative improvised workshops where any number of performers may come together and create something more than the sum of the parts.

Wandering in the general direction of the Fest through downtown Calgary--a pseudo-Cartesian grid of streets with numerical names--becomes utterly hysterical. Every “street” is a number, not to be confused with every “avenue,” which is also a number. For example, Hotel Arts sits just to one side of 1st Street SW, close to where 12 Ave SE begins, as opposed to 12 Ave SW, which begins on the other side of Centre St. South. On the other side of the tracks, the Calgary Tower sits at the intersection of Center St SW and 9 Ave SW, which becomes 9 Ave SE. Occasionally, a street will cross an avenue with the same number, adding to the insanity. One can travel for a block, turn right, and then turn left, with all three of the streets being named “southwest.”

For a more fluid, non-grid-like feel, the Bow River flows eastward through the city and around Prince’s Island Park. An integral defining component of the landscape, the river means everything to Calgarians, their history, their identity and their culture. It is one of the great rivers of Canada.

boaters navigating the Bow River, Calgary
Floating towards the Folk Fest

As one approaches the Fest from the river--an activity easy to arrange--the skyline comes into view ever so gradually. The Bow River becomes a smooth, graceful happening, a natural antithesis to the linear grid-layout of downtown Calgary.

downtown Calgary skyline viewed from the Bow River
The skyline of downtown Calgary when approaching from the Bow River.

At the Fest, the nomad must move. Always. He can’t sit still, unlike the thousands that set up their lounge chairs, blankets and tarps for the weekend.

audience area before the main stage at the Calgary Folk Fest
Folk Fest fanatics getting ready for the weekend’s events on the main stage.

For the nomad, the workshops become the juiciest component of the festival, allowing for constant motion. He just trips in, around, and, especially, between. There’s always a sonic between-ness about the event, as one roams around the park. One stage fades away as the next one draws near. Bluegrass fades into Quebecois folk music, which fades into Arabic hiphop jazz, which fades into Buffy Sainte-Marie.

Buffy Saint-Marie performing onstage at the Calgary Folk Fest
Buffy Saint-Marie on stage at the Folk Fest

All the regulars provide the same response regarding the workshops: They are the real deal, the heart of the Fest, where one sees raw improvisation, ad-hoc accompaniments and thrown-together jams, often among artists who wouldn’t normally share the same stage.

The word, ‘workshop,’ though, barely suffices. One act is usually the host, but the collective assemblage of musicians organizes the set amongst themselves, right on the spot, deciding what to play as they go. Sometimes it merely rotates, with each group performing in succession while the others improvise an accompaniment. A songwriter might perform a tune by herself or she might call out the chords or the key signature, just so the others know what’s in store. In other scenarios, the whole affair explodes into a multi-instrumental ensemble jamming for twenty minutes. Whatever happens, happens. No expectations allowed.

the Nomad's Kitchen presents a wide variety of dishes at the Calgary Folk Fest
Migrating between workshops requires food

Each workshop bears a creative title. “Avant Bards,” for example, elicits attention right off the bat. Elvis Bossa Nova, BRAIDS, Kris Ellestad and Cadence Weapon provide something on stage at the same moment. A female vocalist. A male vocalist. A spacey electronic soundscape, then smoky, folky vocals, then garage exotica ala Martin Denny with percussion, woodwinds and strings. Another workshop, “Tryst ‘n’ Shout,” brings the Punch Brothers to the same stage as Buffy Saint-Marie. She even did the song from those episodes of Sesame Street moons ago. A more ethnically middle-eastern workshop, “Mazel Tov!” features Yemen Blues pitted against accordionist Geoff Berner.

Goeff Berner on stage with Yemen Blues for the Mazel Tov workshop, Calgary Folk Fest
Goeff Berner on stage with Yemen Blues

But the workshop ripest for stalking becomes the one titled, “Vex Us.” The a cappella feminine pastels of Chic Gamine captivate a jam-packed tent. The audience overflows onto the grassy hills outside. Members of David Wax Museum, The Head and the Heart, and the Felice Brothers all take part in the session, trading songs, a few after the other. The mesmerizing Francophone singer, Beatrice Martin, aka Coeur de Pirate, performs ethereal piano-and-vocal numbers. Bonnie Prince Billy later jumps in with the entire group.

At this point, the observer feels like a participant, but cannot sit still. He must migrate to the next stage. No desire to park his caboose in just one place. Movement is key at the Fest. Back at Hotel Arts, the concrete bust awaits.

the concrete bust the Hotel Arts lobby, Calgary
The concrete bust overlooks the lobby at Hotel Arts

Related Articles:
Edmonton; Richmond, B.C.; Toronto; Vancouver; Prince Rupert/Digby Island, B.C.; Victoria; The Blues and Lives Well-Lived


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Let Gary know what you think about his traveling adventure.

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Your tea adventures are especially interesting because I've always associated tea with British etiquette or a bevy of women wearing dainty victorian costumes and sipping tea with their little pinky sticking out. To see Tea from a man's perspective brings new light in a man's psyche. I've been among the many silent admirers of your writings for a long time here at Traveling Boy. Thanks for your very interesting perspectives about your travels. Keep it up! --- Rodger, B. of Whittier, CA, USA


Ed Boitano's travel blog/review
Journey to the Bottom of the Globe: Exploring the White Continent of Antarctica

nguins on  shore as writer's cruise ship passes by, Antarctica
As a travel journalist I am constantly asked what are some of my favorite travel experiences. The list is endless. But there is one destination that seems to raise the most eyebrows. That destination is a cruise to Antarctica. Sadly, that cruise line I was on is no more, but today there is a plethora of cruise lines that offer similar packages. Here's a look back at my Antarctica cruise.

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Tom Weber's travel blog/review
Treasures of Ireland: The Quiet Man (Dispatch #17)

sunset at Galway Bay

The Palladian Traveler follows in the footsteps of some Hollywood icons as he goes "on location" in Cong to pay his respects to his all-time fave movie.

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John Clayton's travel blog/review
Would You Believe She Can Carry 800 (Yes, 800!) People!

Emirates Airbus A-380
As she came around the corner we could not believe how big she was. Massive, and yet incredibly beautiful – almost elegant in fact. Her lines were so symmetrical she seemed to blend into a classic example of astonishing good looks. The other fact that amazed all of us was how quiet she was. We felt sure that with the obvious overwhelming power she evidenced, she'd be extra loud. It's a cliché, but she was as quiet as a church mouse – or "as quiet as dreaming trees."

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Highway 49 Revisited: Exploring California's Gold Country

aurora borealis lights up the night sky near Fairbanks
In the 1840s, the population of California was only 14,000, but by 1850 more than 100,000 settlers and adventurers had arrived from all over the world – and they came for one reason: gold. James Marshall had discovered the first gold nugget at Sutter’s Mill in El Dorado County, creating the largest gold rush in history.

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Eric Anderson's travel blog/review
Lake Charles’ Family-Size Low-Key Mardi Gras

dressed-up for the Mardi Gras
The Southwest Louisiana Mardi Gras in Lake Charles, the second largest in Louisiana, does not need parents there to avert their children’s eyes. This is family entertainment and children are very much part of it. The main office of the Lake Charles CVB has costumes from last year’s Mardi Gras but it also has figures to fascinate little ones from country boys fishing for their dinner to alligators who have already fed and are rubbing their stomachs.

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Fyllis Hockman's travel blog/review
Cedar Hill: Frederick Douglass' Home is as Imposing as the Man who Lived There

Cedar Hill, Washington DC
Having recently received a misguided shout-out from the president during Black History Month – Frederick Douglass has done an amazing job... – it seems a good time to revisit the cultural icon's legitimate place in history. And a visit to his home in Washington, DC – surely a place the current president might want to consider visiting himself – would be a good place to start.

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Greg Aragon's travel blog/review
Discovering Art, Culture and Cuisine in Lancaster

Prime Desert Woodland Preserve, Lancaster

Lancaster has always been one of those cities that I pass through on the way to some other destination. But last week was different. I finally took the time to explore the place and wow, was I surprised! I discovered a downtown full of charm, culture, cuisine and community spirit. My recent getaway began when a friend and I drove about 60 miles north of Los Angeles toward the Mojave Desert and checked into the Towneplace Suites Lancaster.

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Bev Cohn's travel blog
Richard Gere and Joseph Cedar Discuss "The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer"

a scene from the documentary 'My Hero Brother'

Richard Gere is one of America's acting treasures. He has an uncanny knack for selecting scripts with the most interesting characters. Included in some of his vast body of films are "American Gigolo, "An Officer and a Gentleman," "The Cotton Club," "Internal Affairs," "Pretty Woman," "Primal Fear," "Unfaithful," and "Chicago." Joseph Cedar, writer and director of the critically acclaimed "The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer," was born in New York City but when he was five, his family moved to Israel where he was raised.

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